Trump officials offer few clues on reason for ending immigration program

‘If I go back to Honduras, I will die,’ 16-year-old tells congressional committee

A CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE was mostly stonewalled by Trump immigration officials on Wednesday during a hearing that sought to clarify why a program allowing immigrants with serious medical conditions to remain in the US legally ended in August.

While administration officials offered little information in their testimony, the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties heard from immigrants with serious medical conditions, including Jonathan Sanchez, a 16-year-old cystic fibrosis patient living in Dorchester who has been receiving treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Sanchez’s sister died of the disease in Honduras more than a decade ago, under the care of doctors who couldn’t diagnose her until after her death. “If I go back to Honduras, I will die,” he said. “In my point of view, I think that deporting sick kids like me, it will be a legal homicide,” he said.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services sent a letter to Sanchez’s family in mid-August informing them that the “deferred status” that allowed him to remain in the US to receive care was no longer being implemented by USCIS.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, chairman of the House subcommittee, and other Democrats grilled Timothy Robbins, acting executive associate director of  Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Daniel Renaud, associate director with Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Boston asked Renaud if the agency would respond to a letter signed by more than 120 members of Congress demanding answers to how the decision was made to end the program and what happens next. Renaud said he hasn’t seen the letter, but that the agency usually replies to such requests.

Renaud and Robbins said they couldn’t answer many of the committee members’ questions because of pending litigation. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed suit last Friday challenging termination of medical deferred action.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said a subpoena would be considered if the committee doesn’t get the information it requested in the letter. “We’re at a moral crossroads,” she said.

In a partial reversal of the August policy change, Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on September 2 that it would allow any deferred action cases that were pending on August 7 to be reconsidered, a category that includes Sanchez. For all others, the program is being terminated.

Chinonye Omeje, a 29-year-old Quincy resident originally from Nigeria, falls into that second category. Omeje was 14 years old when she had an epileptic seizure while cooking her family’s dinner over an open fire. She fell into the fire face first, the stew burning her beyond recognition. She was blinded, and her nose, lips, ears, and eyelids melted away.

It was only a year later, in 2006, when an American doctor at a clinic asked about the heavily bandaged young woman, that she was connected to Boston Shriners Hospital for Children and brought to the US to receive what would be the first of more than 50 surgeries.

She’s remained in the US through the medical deferred action program, which has also allowed her and her mother to acquire work permits to help fund her surgeries. Donations from philanthropic organizations, along with pro bono work from doctors who had never seen a case of such extreme disfigurement, brought her this far. But now, in the midst of ongoing facial reconstruction treatments, she may face deportation when her status ends in January.

Her only recourse at that point, through ICE’s current protocol, would be to seek a temporary one-year medical stay at the end of her deportation proceedings.

Going back to Nigeria means leaving behind the medical team at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where she began receiving treatment after turning 18.

Chinonye Omeje at 14, in the late 2000s, and in 2019. (shared by Helen Omeje)

Omeje’s attorney, Bee Mandell, said in an interview she faces a grim future in Nigeria. “Chi Chi fears the risk of significant infection due to necrotic tissue complications she is facing from her ongoing facial reconstructive surgeries,” he said, using her nickname, “and she has additional fears related to her particular combination of issues involving her epilepsy and severe facial disfigurement.”

A graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind and member of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, Omeje is frightened about the prospect of being deported. “I could lose my life if I were home now. My doctors are worried about more infections,” she said.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Dr. Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician at Mass. General Hospital, told the committee the patients face serious risks if deported. “An error as small as a missed dose of medication, a dislodged tracheotomy tube…could be catastrophic,” she said, adding that she also has grave concerns about the lack of clean water, electricity, and proper nutrition in the countries her patients are from.

Most questions from Republicans for Tom Homan, the former acting director of ICE, were about unrelated, but contentious, border policy issues.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, dismissed the testimony of patients and medical and legal experts. “These people are here to scare people,” he said. Grothman said he thought there was no chance Sanchez or other immigrants in severe medical straits would be deported.

ICE stopped short of assuring Raskin that patients who testified at the hearing wouldn’t be targeted for deportation.

When asked about the differences between the now-terminated medical deferred status and deportation proceedings, Renaud and Robbins conceded to Democratic lawmakers that ICE does not provide work permits and would only allow immigrants with severe medical conditions to remain for a year, on a case by case basis. The deferred status program granted immigrants receiving medical care authorization to remain in the US for two years, a status that could be renewed as long as they demonstrated a need for ongoing treatment.

“There is no new program at ICE,” Anthony Marino, an attorney with Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston, told the committee. “People can’t go into an ICE office and apply for deferred action like with USCIS,” said Marino, whose agency represents 19 deferred action patients who received termination notices last month.

Pressed by lawmakers on whether any thought is being given to rethinking the program termination in light of the strong criticism the move has faced, Robbins said discussion on what to do about deferred action was “ongoing.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Robbins and Renaud both declined to answer questions from Pressley and Raskin on whether President Trump, presidential advisor Stephen Miller, an immigration hardliner, or the current head of the Department of Homeland Security were involved in the decision-making, saying that the genesis of the decision was part of the ongoing court case.

Citizenship and Immigration Services has said that it receives over 1,000 applications for medical deferred action status every year, and confirmed that 709 requests were pending on August 7.